Both Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer have resigned as contributors from Bloggingheadstv.com (BhTV). Seems that BhTV founder and editor-in-chief Robert Wright could not assure them that no obviously wrong (crazy) person would appear on the site in the future, like me or (somewhat less crazy) Mike Behe, at least in the science segments.
There’s not a lot to say about this. Like all other humans, scientists use social inclusion and exclusion to mark the boundaries of their community. (I have seen this taken to near-comical extremes. In June 1999, while walking with me on a hillside gravel road to a fossil outcrop in Chengjiang, China, paleontologist David Bottjer turned abruptly on his heel and began walking swiftly in the opposite direction — away from the fossils, and back towards the bus. The reason? I had asked him casually how his day was going.) The whole business reminds one of high school cliques. If she is going to sit here, then I’m moving to another table.
But a few comments are in order:
1. BhTV editor David Killoren, who invited me onto the site, says that my discussion with Ron Numbers was a “failed experiment.” That’s not how he described the exchange before the hostile comments and protests from Carroll and Zimmer came in. Here is how Killoren put it, complete with his emoticons, in a July 25 email to Numbers and me on the day our exchange went live:
This conversation is really fascinating on several levels. Thanks to both of you for doing this. And Paul — I hope your (testable!) prediction that this diavlog gets many hits comes true! 🙂
Now that Carroll and Zimmer have taken their lunch trays to the other side of the cafeteria, Killoren says that “creationists and ID’ers are crackpots. I agree that these crackpots do harm (e.g. by corrupting public perception of science)”. Which is why someone at BhTV featured my comments about opposing requiring ID in public schools in the Hot Topics sidebar.
Corrupting, you know.
2. Sean Carroll needs to get out more — out of his own corner of the science literature, anyway. He writes:
Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural “designer” is interfering at whim with the course of evolution.
But they are. This week’s PNAS carries a research article claiming to refute irreducible complexity, Mike Behe’s signature idea about the structure of biomolecular systems. At the big Cold Spring Harbor symposium on Darwin and evolution this past May, where Mike Behe presented a poster, several talks were dedicated in their entirety to challenging ID, and many speakers brought up the topic in their own presentations. I saw Mike at a small research meeting at the University of Pittsburgh a few days after the Cold Spring event, and he reported with some amusement about the attention given to ID there.
That’s the problem with social exclusion as a tactic. In an open society, it’s hard to control who talks to whom, or about what.
3. It’s the epistemology, stupid.
Here’s the standard riff:
Creationists and IDers hold their views out of ignorance, stupidity, or malice — Dawkins’s “stupid, wicked, or insane” trope. If only these people were properly educated in evolutionary biology (or whatever), they’d agree that undirected evolution is the best explanation for our existence.
But maybe not. Maybe the much bigger aspect is below the waterline, and concerns one’s philosophy of nature, or explanation, or understanding of (or rejection of) theology. Maybe it’s the epistemology that really counts — not the empirical evidence, strictly speaking, because the available evidence greatly underdetermines the Big Picture.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was a lifelong skeptic of Darwinian evolution. In his late work On Certainty (1949-51), Wittgenstein grappled with exactly the “oh-hell-if-I-allow-that-doubt-or-question-all- rationality-is-gone” worries, which just drove Carroll and Zimmer from BhTV.
Turns out, however, that rationality can survive all kinds of questions. Social control or cohesion, on the other hand, may take a hit.
Here’s how Wittgenstein put it, with respect to the theories that Carroll, Zimmer, Coyne, and others take as, respectively, crazy (creation) versus beyond reasonable doubt (undirected evolution):
Very intelligent and well-educated people believe in the story of creation in the Bible, while others hold it as proven false, and the grounds of the latter are well known to the former. (1972, p. 43e, emphasis in original)
“The grounds of the latter are well known to the former.” If undirected evolution is unpersuasive after one has received graduate level, in-depth training in the subject, maybe it’s not the evidence or the theory that one needs to know more about.
Maybe one sees that philosophical materialism, the take-home message for Dawkins, Coyne, Carroll, et al., is actually ill-supported by the science.
In which case, a vigorous debate is exactly what is wanted.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1972. On Certainty. New York: Harper & Row.